Many readers may have come to know the work of AIA’s 2009 Firm of the Year, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects (OSKA), through media coverage of such projects as Delta Shelter, Rolling Huts, and the much publicized Chicken Point Cabin. Sited in dramatic natural settings, the residences incorporate an abundance of glazing, a raw materiality, and the use of kinetic metal gadgetry that operates apertures and/or propels movement. These projects are the work of partner Tom Kundig, FAIA, whose architecture is both understated and bold, sometimes unpredictable, and always fresh. Though Kundig’s award-winning projects may have brought national awareness to the firm, his work represents only a portion of the office’s overall output, developed since 1966, when Jim Olson, FAIA, founded a one-man operation in Seattle.
Rick Sundberg, FAIA, joined the office in 1974, when Olson was in partnership with Gordon Walker. After Walker left, Sundberg became a partner in 1985. Kundig and Scott Allen, AIA, joined Olson Sundberg in 1985 and 1986, respectively, becoming partners in 2000, when the firm became Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, as it is known today.
Each partner’s work varies in approach from Kundig’s. Olson’s widely published and award-winning projects focus primarily on residential work for major art collectors across the country. He is recognized for his ability to combine architecture, art, landscape, and furnishings into a completely integrated whole. Sundberg is regarded as the urbanist and civic proponent among the partners, serving as the green strategist in a firm that has historically held to sustainable principles. Allen served as the managing partner of the group until this February, when he left the firm to begin a new career.
Last year, Alan Maskin, AIA, and Kristen Murray, AIA, became partners, with Murray replacing Allen as managing partner. Maskin, who joined the firm in 1992, oversees the visual representations of the firm’s portfolio and focuses on the design of museums, exhibitions, and stage sets. Murray, known as a generalist, has had 25 years of experience working at OSKA, often taking the role of the planner on projects, investigating a problem, looking at options, and establishing a path for the design process.
A firm of such diverse talents is not prone to easy assessment. As architecture critic Paul Goldberger has noted, “In an age in which most architects actively seek to achieve the identity of a ‘look,’ Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen’s work eschews simple similarities. Certain principles are evident from one building to another, as is the absence of direct historical replication, but consistency is not the same as a packageable style.” This lack of pattern results in part from the varied proclivities of the partners, the participatory voices of the team members, and the changeability of the team’s composition. OSKA maintains a fluid structure in designing its buildings; in a profession that typically operates on the studio system, organized either around building types or the partners themselves, this firm does neither. Assignments are based on project schedules and needs and staff skills and interests, with the intention of “cross-pollinating” capabilities and personalities. One gets the impression of an 85-member family that works in a true collaborative spirit in its Seattle offices, located on the top two floors of a former warehouse in Pioneer Square.
On Thursday evenings at the weekly “crit,” the collective genius of the firm is put to the test, challenging design decisions that might include strategies for site or design development, sustainability, or how to stay within the budget. Murray says, “The crit is intended to stimulate thought and mirror the way the team learned to communicate in school. It also has social underpinnings and allows the staff to see what else is going on in the office.”
The majority of the partners have spent their lives in the Pacific Northwest; indeed, the four original partners all attended the University of Washington in Seattle. Their design inspiration draws from the region’s old-growth forests, the mist and diffuse light, and the proximity to the sea. These natural conditions, combined with indigenous traditions of wood- and metalworking stemming from the area’s lumber and industrial past, suggest the firm’s style, one that focuses on the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, buildings with broad overhangs, and the use of heavy-timber construction.
OSKA has made the transition from a firm with a regional sensibility to one worthy of national and even international distinction. Says Kundig, “We are fortunate to be able to work with great clients in our remote, moist little corner up here. To be recognized on so many levels by our peers and colleagues is truly gratifying.”